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LISTEN: New Bargou 08
Richie Troughton , March 27th, 2017 12:48

Hear Tunisian folk music reimagined on new track 'Roddih' from Bargou 08, plus interview with Sofyann Ben Youssef about the making of their new album

Rarely documented, the musical traditions of the Tunisian mountain highlands has been given an electronic makeover by Bargou 08, whose reworking of a selection of folk songs allows ancient music to be heard by the outside world for the first time, like never before.

Bargou 08 frontman Nidhal Yahyaoui collected songs for the project from the area where he grew up in the north west of Tunisia, near the Algerian border. The inspiration for the direction of new album Targ followed a vision Yahyaoui had of Moog synthesisers being found in the valley of the Bargou mountain region and what music could have been created on their discovery as a result.

To make the album Yahyaoui brought a group of musicians, including album producer/arranger and Moog player Sofyann Ben Youssef, to his family home in the village of Bargou and created a makeshift studio, complete with rooms soundproofed with hay bales.

This rural setting is captured to great effect on Targ, with the breathy and strained sound of wind instrument the gasba, combining with lute-like loutar and bendir drums, with Yahyaoui’s spirited vocals telling the old stories of the mountains. 'Roddih', streamed above, opens with a blast of traditional reed instrument, the zokra, and drums, with the sound filled out with the pulsing electronic bass pumping waves of contemporary sound into music with origins dating back hundreds of years. While Youssef’s synths add another dimension to the tracks it does not alter the arrangements, rather elevating the body of music and maximising floor filling potential, with deep bass, warped oscillations and additional pounding drums.

Sofyann Ben Youssef told us more about how the project came together.

This is your first album, can you introduce the group and how did you start to make music together?

Sofyann Ben Youssef: I was introduced to this adventure by my childhood friend and singer Nidhal Yahyaoui. We took up a residence in his home village to direct the project and explore possibilities. I started right away making recording sessions on site, to have a sense of what this project was going to be.

The songs on the album are traditional, what is the history of this music and how were the songs collected for this project and how far and wide did the music come from?

SBY: The music of Targ is based on songs that were transmitted by oral tradition over generations throughout hundreds of years, Nidhal as originated from Bargou village (I am from Djerba, an island off southern Tunisia) had the chance to grow listening to this repertoire. I have to say that every song existed in so many versions, so many different colours, that it is basically impossible to tell which one is the original as the songs are a few hundred years old. Singing the Targ means also a very personal and lyrical approach to the melody and the lyrics. Some change from one singer to another, and even at times improvising lyrics inspired by life events is also a part of this tradition.

Why was it important for you to document this music?

SBY: This music represents a large musical identity of the north west of the country, it is a repertoire that has not been well documented compared to music coming from major and economically privileged cities. We believe in the equality of chances.

Who did you work with to work out lyrics and arrangements? What subjects do the lyrics talk about?

SBY: As producer of the album finding the sound of the band was one of my main responsibilities. Nidhal was bringing in the songs and the lyrics and, together with the band, we tried to explore all possibilities to adapt them.

The meaning of the lyrics can vary from one song to another. Some are about love, exile, loss and also eroticism. Elements of the nature are very often used to achieve a poetic effect of the expressed meaning.

For anyone unfamiliar with the area please describe the Bargou region and, aside from it being your home and where you grew up, what it means to you? Where does the '08' in the name come from?

SBY: The ‘08’ was the area code. People in the privileged cities used it in a negative way to refer to the people coming from the neglected and poor north west area. We wanted to reverse that negativity into pride - to celebrate the richness and the culture of Bargou. It actually worked!

The album was recorded in a building in Nidhal’s village in the Bargou mountains – how did you prepare the studio and what challenges did this present in order for you to capture the sound you wanted?

SBY: For many reasons recording the album of Bargou 08, in Bargou, was the only choice we considered. I won’t say it was easy, but it was magical. With the band we wanted to share a strong message to young musicians in Tunisia, that making an album can happen anywhere with a little bit of magic and imagination. Linking the repertoire with its original place can bring more depth and clarity in the production process.

I had the idea to use bales of hay to treat the acoustic response of the stone walled rooms. It was super risky because I had never tried that before, but I had a strong intuition that it was going to be perfect. It was like the sense of the procedure took over the reality of the production process. But once there and we started stacking those bales of hay on the wall, it all made sense, it sounded amazing and special, and this explains the sound of the album. It was the cheapest acoustic treatment I ever used!

Can you tell us about the traditional instruments used on the record? Are any of the instruments specific to the Bargou mountains?

SBY: In the record we use two wind instruments, a flute called gasba, and a reed called zokra. The great master Lassaed Bougalmi plays them both. Then there is a whole set of frame drums called bendir played by Imed Rezgui and Jihed Khmiri. And Nidhal, our singer, plays also loutar - a traditional Berber lute that used to exist in that area a long time ago, but not anymore.

While the songs on the album have a long history, here you have recorded with Moog synthesisers to add electronic bass and beats. Can you tell us more about how you hoped to meld traditional with contemporary sounds?

SBY: My aim was very clear from the beginning. I wasn’t looking to make this music sound modern. On the contrary, I was determined to find key elements from within the tradition itself to enhance the certain intelligibility of the repertoire. My bass lines on the moog are directly inspired by the traditional rhythms. I felt that this music didn’t need more.

Observing lots of music made from all around the world, I noticed that most traditional music has a lack of bass and subwoofers (Japanese taiko drums being an exception) and I wanted to complement the spectrum with another instrument that doesn’t interfere with all the traditional elements, but empower them. For that purpose the moog was perfect, it allowed me to play along and be all over the bass spectrum, while enriching the traditional music. It is a symbiotic equilibrium that was very hard to put a finger on. A great challenge.

What has been the reaction of people who have known this music for a long time to hear it this way?

SBY: After our stay in Bargou, we invited all the families and neighbours in the village for a private concert, so they were the first ever people to listen to the project. We have few videos online that capture the ambience. It was a real party, they loved it!

Targ is out now through Glitterbeat